Tomato or dance

23 June 2017

I woke up this morning out of a service dream in which I was trying to reassure a guest during the dance about price:

— The bottles of wine on our list start at $36 and go to the four figures, and anywhere along the way we can find you something delicious & honestly made, I said.
— Well then what, the guest said (in the mood to press me a little), is the difference between that $36 bottle & those four-figure ones?

What I said (in the dream) is something I’ve been meaning to work out in writing, at a little more length. But instead of that I’ll just tell you, if I can remember, what I said in the dream.

— At the everyday end of the market, wine is basically a grocery; at the high end, it’s an art collector’s game. In the everyday, you’re buying a perfectly ripe tomato. At the high end, you’re buying a Picasso.

(I thought for a second, or pretended to look thoughtful.)

— Of course, you’re also drinking the thing for dinner! So it’s not really a Picasso you’re buying, unless everyone is burning their Picassos after they look at them. (And also, unless Picasso was actually simultaneously painting a couple thousand replicas at once…you see how analogies break down if you let them.) If it’s art, it’s an art we consume, something momentary & irreplicable, but something that can be restaged later under different terms. A jazz concert, say, or dance.

And so I woke up this morning thinking, ‘tomato, or dance?’

And I think that’s a nice way to think about the wines that I love and that give me pleasure, to unite a simultaneous appreciation for honest, unpretentious juice you guzzle out of a bottle* & oh, that ’96 Priuré-Roch Clos de Corvées that I tasted Wednesday night, mythic, crystalline, unsulfured & unsurpassed red Burgundy that could have covered a month’s rent in my college apartment in Boston ten years ago.

*I nominate Lauer “Barrel X” riesling for this ‘adult juicebox’ category, if you want an example. I also encourage everyone to look closely at the now-modish Instagram trend of drinking straight out of bottles and see if they’re actually drinking, because in many cases I feel like the foil’s still on that thing.

Now— if you’ll allow me to continue stretching analogies around the room— everyday wine is a perfectly ripe tomato only at the best of times. Sometimes it’s one of those tomatoes that was picked green in Florida so that it didn’t bruise in the truck and then gassed to color. Sometimes it’s an heirloom tomato that has little splits in it, one of the big ugly ones, and your kid starts crying because it doesn’t look like the tomatoes in the grocery store, the color’s wrong, why isn’t it perfectly round… Sometimes the tomato is spoiled. Sometimes it’s more like a can of Bloody Mary mix.

And while it’s nice to think of blue-chip wine as art—as dance—while wine pricing for blue-chip bottles works like the art collection market in a lot of ways— they’re even sold at the same auctions!— expensive wine can also work more like a luxury branded good. A Luis Vuitton handbag, say. (And the wine and the handbag will be owned, you guessed it, by the same company.)

So in the end there’s still a distinction, but it’s not just about price. It’s between heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market & a can of V8 on the low end, and it’s between an irreplicable piece of performative art and whatever the commodified version of that is at the high. Nobody’s saying you have to spend a lot of money on wine to be happy. But there’s still a difference between that tomato and that can. And once in a while, you get to dance.

I’m losing the thread. I can’t remember how the dream ended; I think I woke up before I’d convinced the table to order any wine.


Txakoli (& kalimotxo)

10 March 2010

Romería, José Arrúe (1977). Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.

“El tercero era un tal Txomin Oronoz, alias Txordo (cerjijunto), un silente navarro de Elizondo, el experto en explosivos. Era adicto al kalimotxo, innoble brebaje cuya paternidad o al menos bautismo se atribuye al sediento poeta bilbaíno Gabriel Aresti.”

Alacranes en su tinta, Juan Bas (p. 188)*

Kalimotxo, (that innoble brebaje, Bas calls it — more on his weird, weird little novel tomorrow), is one of those things you discover quickly: the Basques, you’ll be told, drink (the person telling you pauses here, scandalized) wine and coca-cola together. Yes, true: In the midst of some of the best wine country in Spain, Bilbao’s youth adulterate their plonk with litres of coke, apparently since 1972, when during fiestas in Getxo (in the origin story, it was still called Getcho then), a massive quantity of wine spoiled somehow & to save the party, it was mixed with gallons of Coca-Cola so that nobody would notice.

Truth is, though, mixing cheap red wine with whatever’s at hand is kind of a Spanish national pastime (see: tinto de verano). In Aragón & parts of Navarra they call it cubata del pobre — ‘poor man’s cuba libre.’ Elsewhere in Spain, the spelling is knocked into castillian orthography & it’s called calimocho, or sometimes rioja libre. It tastes about how you’d think. The sallow 15 year-olds who are its primary consumers are called kalimotxeros.

Txakoli is a different story altogether — it’s a local white wine, very dry & acidic & served cold, didn’t even have a denominación de origen until about twenty years ago (some types were only certified eight or nine years back). Before that, it was all homemade. “Now,” a teacher from my school told me, “they even make it with grapes!” It used to be like battery acid, she said. You needed a stomach made out of steel to drink it.

But these days, it’s gone & refined itself — there was an article in the local paper about a big tasting in Madrid, it’s become trendy like Argentinian malbecs were a couple years back. There’s three main regional varieties, some of which (I drank this kind in San Sebastían) are kind of frothy, almost fizzing. In bars, they pour it into flat-bottomed glasses from a great height, or you drink it at village fiestas out of a porrón, which is this glass decanter with a spout that you hold about three feet over your head.

That’s, at least, what I did on Sunday afternoon, at the going-away party for a Basque bartender-friend who’s studying in Poland for three months. Look closely at the left part of the Arrúe painting, at the guys with the accordion & the guitar & (probably, although I can’t see it) an alboca — that was more or less the scene in Plaza Nueva three days ago: virtually everyone I knew in the city trooping through the streets of the Casco Viejo, playing traditional Basque music, dancing, drinking txakoli (an excellent accompaniment to fried seafood), drawing a crowd, little kids running alongside us.

When I get my hands on some good photographs I’ll try to tell you all about pintxos.


*Translated: “The third was one Txomin Oronoz aka Txordo (“Unibrow”), a taciturn Navarrese from Elizondo whose specialty was explosives. He was crazy for kalimotxo, that bastardized concoction fathered, or at least baptized, by that thirstiest of Bilbao’s poets, Gabriel Aresti.”

(This has to be some kind of joke that I’m not getting — one of Bilbao’s most famous Basque-language poets was a kalimotxero? If you say so, Juan Bas.)

A note on Basque spelling: tx is pronounced ch, and knowing that gets you a long ways towards being able to read it out loud.

San Blas

3 February 2010

Today is the feast day of San Blas (English: Blaise), patron of the throat. Here (by here I mean “in Bizkaia,” as one of the teachers at my school was quick to tell me: “Just in Bizkaia — not in Gipuzkoa”) you wear something — I didn’t quite catch what, a medallion or a ribbon, I’ll tell you when I find out —  around the neck for a certain number of days in his honor, and groups old men, in the Basque way, wear checked kerchiefs & berets & roam the old town singing in the streets. The church dedicated to him is in Arenal, across the river, and on my way here to write this there was a crowd spilling out the door of the church and into a line that stretched down the side of the street.

For San Blas they also sell a kind of flat, unleavened pastry made with oil, anise & a sugar glaze that someone brought to school a few days ago, and also a kind of small, hard donut (buñelo) out of what I think is the same dough.

(Gipuzkoa, incidentally, is the neighboring province, capital San Sebastian, which is a cosmopolitan seaside town & retreat for the wealthy — French menus, world-famous chefs, exquisite pintxos, a beach. There is a provincial rivalry.)


15 January 2010

— Photograph by flikr user luckydolls09111988.

When I was at boarding school in California, the appearance of flan for dessert at the dinner table was universally dreaded — the texture, somehow at once soggy & spongy, the too-sweet caramel, the endless size of the rectangular pans. We would bet each other in order to finish it off. I was promised once by a Spanish teacher that someday I’d like flan, if I ever had good flan.

I arrived in Andalucía, walked through grocery stores & marveled, like you do in a foreign country, at the strange packaging, the unfamiliar names, the oddities (crustless bread!) — and among the things pronounced, in those first weeks, as incomprehensible were the mass-produced prepackaged flans. Disgusting — little foil cups sold in three-packs like pudding. Why would anybody eat these? What was the appeal?

Here’s the thing: After a year in Jaén, after finally enjoying flan casero in a dozen forms & going back to the States & returning again & finding myself presented with that little foil cup of flan, I ate it with pleasure — not because I hadn’t had better, or because it was particularly good flan, but because it reminded me of something I had enjoyed. It was like a shadow of flan casero, of something I’d had already, something that I had grown accustomed to liking, and so I could enjoy it as bad flan in spite of itself, as flan, as a reminder of flan.

I knew what it should have tasted like;  I knew it was an insufficient substitution; I could fill in the missing places with memory.